The weight of your privacy
Put the pen to the pad when things don't feel right... It is fascinating and worrying to see how large the world's biggest internet companies have become in recent years. We have all heard about the dark web, but rarely discuss the dark sides of the technology we have embraced in our daily lives. A fair dose of scepticism about social media and search technologies has always lead me to question the motives of the world's largest internet companies.
We live in the era of the hyper-connected user, where whether we like it or not, everything we say, every aspect of our lives and whatever we do is mapped digitally and discussed online. Over time, this massive pool of gathered information has been exploited by these internet monopolies we have come to admire so much. This information is used against us, often without our consent. This fact has tremendous implications for our psychological comfort, as well as the well being of our society. It shakes our democracies up. The privacy of our data has never been more important.
Data is the new "oil"
It is extremely hard to completely ditch the digital services that these internet companies provide. We have come to love them. They bring so much convenience to our daily lives and we have grown so accustomed to using them. We search everything online, we commute using geolocating devices, we express ourselves on social media, we shop through online marketplaces... We trade off free information about our behaviour and preferences for the sake of convenience. This info gets exploited by massive systems to target us with increasingly more sophisticated advertisement campaigns and products. Years of refinements to these systems and their algorithms have created vast data sets that know us extremely well and will soon be able to predict our behavioural habits (predictive analytics).
Hundreds of hours spent in front of Farmville and Candy Crush (remember those..?) a few years ago, has exposed millions of users to subliminal adverts while it allowed some third parties to harvest our friends lists through the exploit of a Facebook API. These friends lists and data were shared unanimously and freely without our knowledge. We have been tricked to play an addictive game "for free", in exchange of our data and online behavioural patterns. In this sense, the problem with the world wide web is that once this data is shared, it is out there in the infinite cloud, and cannot be suppressed or retrieved. It is virtually impossible to know where this information has been stored, whom it has been shared with, and how it can be leveraged by these platform owners. If these servers ever get hacked, it poses severe security risks to entire populations and governments. If you ever played any of these games between 2010-2014, the odds that you have escaped data harvesting are very slim. Whenever this information gets exploited to skew any election for example, it is the core values of our democracies that are at risk.
Beyond the PR mumbo-jumbo and sleek corporate slang, it is very hard for the public to perceive what the business models and true motives of these internet companies are all about. Quite frankly, most of us don't know, it is shadowy at best. This very fact should get us all worried. Three years on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and based on ensuing denial-and-deflect attitude, it is safe to assume that Facebook, Google and al. don't really care about the privacy of our data. Heck, their whole systems are designed to exploit this data.
Google collects more data than anyone else. They get your data from search results, Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Smart TV and every other app they offer. They acquire the data of your credit card, as well as data from other offline sources. On top of that, they engineer very advanced artificial intelligence to create filter bubbles that lock us in our own search, skewing results to keep us exposed to the things that we like. YouTube does something similar, but more extreme, in video. We are locked in our own world, which distorts our perception of society and our sense of judgement. This alienation from our social references facilitates the spread of misinformation and polarise populations across the globe. This data-driven filtering of content defies the very principle of net-neutrality.
Facebook and other social media sites have gathered far more intel than governments. They develop facial recognition technologies and can identify us more and more precisely through artificial intelligence without requiring human intervention. Their systems monitor our expressions, motives, socio-political and cultural affiliations and can suggest who would be a suitable "friend" or life partner. They know us more than we do and still to this day, a significant revenue comes from bulk data access sold to the third parties. When Amazon introduces Alexa the virtual assistant into our homes, they basically create a direct way of snooping into our lives. By collecting voice samples of our wishes 24/7, no wonder they know exactly what we fancy buying on their e-store. AI-assisted online advertisement then becomes the natural and most efficient vector to link cause and effect, and lure us to digital heaven.
Less is more
Data is the currency of the web. Every time Facebook and Google introduces a new service for free, it creates an opportunity to establish a new data set about its users. Our search history offers patterns of behavioural data, which can inform purchase intent signals for example. When Google introduced Gmail, it built a data set of identity. Again, when Google introduced Google Maps, it allowed them to build a data set of our geolocation and whereabouts. It is not hard to understand that the combination of these data sets (behaviour + identity + location) exponentially creates value for advertisers and by extension, Google.
Combining more data sets determine the anticipation of future purchase intent, based on a detailed history of past behaviour and habits. Whenever we get the feeling that we see an avert online for something "we were just thinking about", it isn't a coincidence. It is due to behaviour predictability induced by the refinement of these data sets over years. The pertinent question remains: do we as user get more value than harm in exchange of this data?
Is technology to blame?
No. I have for years worked in the tech space. I'm the biggest supporter of technology when used the right way. Curing cancer will take us to consolidate great levels of technology, Artificial Intelligence has the potential to help us solve immense endemic problems and evolve the healthcare industry. Connected devices (IoT) and Augmented Reality (AR) will make us interact with the world in safer and more profound ways. The objection is not the use of technology, it is the abuse of our privacy to feed systems that are designed to exploit us and keep us addicted. We have to collectively associate technology with channels for the betterment of society. We have to question the motives of the companies behind the services we use. We have to define the pattern with which we will express ourselves digitally and socially, we need a clear understanding of our rights whenever we engage online.
How can we minimise our footprint?
It is very difficult today to be connected online without somehow being sucked into services owned by Google and Facebook. Yet, there are ways to minimise the size of our shadow online and remain more discreet and neutral.
using a tracking-free browser such as DuckDuckGo (there are cool ones that even make society a bit better...)
surfing the web in "incognito" mode
randomised password and token, which are regularly changed
using a VPN solution to hide your IP address while surfing, which prevents geolocalisation
distinctly separating the content of your email accounts (work >< personal)
relying on verbal communication rather than messaging apps when sharing private or sensitive information
using a software solution such as Ghostery for a cleaner and more neutral web experience
limiting our daily use of social media and our smartphone
turning off notifications to most apps on our smartphone
keeping connected devices out of the bedroom for better sleep
turning the contrast and intensity of our screens to a minimum, limiting addiction-prone behaviour
clearing our browser cookies automatically at frequent intervals
never connecting to any external websites using Facebook Connect or similar
never downloading images directly off social media websites onto your machine (it injects scripts to your images to track you deeper...)
never pressing "Likes" buttons on websites
always questioning the purpose of new technologies before we accommodate them
avoid engaging with inflammatory content online (think cats and puppies, instead of the war in the middle east...)
retaining the public debate about the value of privacy
teaching the values of data privacy to teenagers in schools (who are more prone to get targeted)
governments enforcing initiatives such as GDPR, to promote freedom and privacy globally
promoting principles of net-neutrality at all cost, as a civic right
promoting principles of humane technology and design
in extreme cases, shutting social media sites down during periods of tense elections or political turmoil
As a company, yechte remain in favour of technology that is non-intrusive, respectful of our democratic values, and keeps people engaged but non-addicted. We remain convinced that technology has an essential role to play for the betterment of society, but it should be designed around the user and his psychological comfort. We are fervent supporters of the principles of Humane Technology and net-neutrality, embracing mind over matter.